How a hack with MIT’s technology is solving India’s biggest internal security threat

An early morning meeting at Koshy’s, one of Bangalore’s oldest surviving restaurants turned into a narrative of how a journalist from India’s troubled heartland, technologists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and volunteers from Bangalore, teamed up to help tribals in Chhattisgarh- the epicenter of India’s biggest internal security threat.

As a journalist employed by international media houses like The Guardian and the British Broadcasting Corporation in the nineties,Shubhranshu Choudhary, was flush with cash. For over 10 years, he’d covered the wars in Southeast Asia, the coups, the cyclones and had seen much violence.

Visiting Chhattisgarh, now the center of Maoist violence on an assignment to cover the killing of over 100 people, Choudhary watched the “boys and girls” who studied with him in a tribal school, become the foot-soldiers of the Maoist revolution– killing and ready to be killed. Something had to be done, because for him, Chhattisgarh was home and it was burning.

“I was clueless in the beginning. But when my soul, my home, started burning, I had to something about it,” he says. Soon, he was asking questions that went beyond the number of dead people and caliber of the firearms used. “There is a complete breakdown of communication,” says Choudhary, who is a Knight International Journalism fellow.

Maoist Heartland Chhattisgarh.

Maoist Heartland Chhattisgarh (Image credit: IISS.org)

The problem, he describes, is that the Hindi speaking elite got their due and sometimes more by communicating with the administration directly or indirectly through the media but tribal voices went unheard. “The Maoists are  exploiting this to create a class war,” he says. Policies that were made, based on media reports by Hindi speaking journalists who gather information from Hindi minority, ended up angering the majority. “For instance, the minority Hindi speaking population have water. They might be in need of Coffee. We report that. Government sends tonnes of Coffee to Chhattisgarh where 90 % do not have water to drink,” he explains.

The next step was to start breaking the communication barrier and bringing unheard stories from India’s heartland to the mainstream.  “Democratising the media,” he calls it. In 2004, the experiment which was to “fail” soon began.

First it was a Yahoo! group on which reports that were neglected  by mainstream media were discussed. But Internet had limited reach (.7 %) in tribal areas and did not serve the purpose.  Later, he tried a simple setup which included many community radio stations bridged by the Internet. The original idea behind CGNet Swara was to have citizen reporters armed with radio transmitters call in to report news. That attempt was a failure. Costs of setting up radio stations were too high and government regulations did not allow effective radio communication in the region.

Around this time, mobile phones were rapidly picking up. To work around the problems with radio technology, Chaudhary got in touch with Saman Amarasinghe, a professor at Massachussets Institute of Technology. In turn, the professor connected him with Bill Thies, a researcher who was working on communication technologies that promote development in emerging countries. Thies designed the initial software for CGNet Swara as a project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The simple software turns mobile phones– mainly used for one to one communication– to a broadcasting tool.

How it works

Choudhary says that now CGNet Swara gets more than 200 calls to listen and about 10- 15 people record messages everyday. Besides Chaudhary and Thies, the team which works on the experiment includes Arjun Venkatraman, a social entrepreneur and Anoop Saha, an IIT Kanpur graduate who grew up in South Bastar district of Chhattisgarh.

Shubhranshu Choudhary, Knight International Journalism Fellow

Shubhranshu Choudhary

The impact?

Before Choudhary could talk about the impact, he runs out of time. The tea is cold and the restaurant is buzzing with breakfast chatter. There is much to be done to make this a sustainable project, he admits as he bids farewell.

But the story doesn’t feel complete without talking about its impact. From the project’s website, it seems that through the portal, they have managed to get officials to return bribe money to adivasis, get a ration dealers son arrested for beating a dalit lady, procure land deeds and subsidized food for adivasis. More stories from interiors of Chhattisgarh have begun showing up in mainstream media and policymakers have started taking note.

PS: If you come across stories and people making an impact on the ground, we’d like to hear from you.